During a recent visit in the city of Nashville, we had the opportunity to tour the beautiful Belle Meade Plantation. Originally purchased in 1807 by the Virginian, John Harding, the plantation grew to about 5,400 acres in the late 19th century. At the time of the Civil War, the plantation held 136 slaves, who provided the labor necessary for its operation.
Between 1827 and 1858 Alexander Campbell made six preaching tours to Middle Tennessee. During his 1830 visit to Nashville, he engaged in a debate with the Presbyterian pastor, Obadiah Jennings, after which Campbell baptized thirty people in the Cumberland River, including John Harding of the Belle Meade Plantation. Harding was greatly moved by the preaching of brother Campbell, which made an indelible impression upon him. A noticeable change in the way Harding treated his slaves is historically documented, including allowing them to hear and obey the gospel for themselves, and even to assemble in their own congregation, known as the Grapevine church. Meanwhile, John Harding and his daughter-in-law, Mary Selena McNairy Harding, who was also baptized by Campbell in the Cumberland River in December, 1830, attended a congregation established by Campbell himself. This became one of the first integrated congregations in the city of Nashville. These facts support the current belief that John Harding actually encouraged his slaves at Belle Meade to find salvation in Christ and embrace Christianity—something unheard of in that day.
This is not to say that Harding renounced slavery or even fully agreed with Campbell’s teaching on the matter. But for a wealthy, Southern plantation owner of that period to allow his slaves to independently study the Bible, obey the gospel, and even attend their own congregation was highly unusual. On display in the archives at Belle Meade is artwork depicting slaves engaging in evening prayer services, and other freedoms unknown in typical plantation life. The sketches are displayed alongside portraits of gospel preachers from the 19th century, including Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and “Raccoon” John Smith. The image at the left is a photograph I took in a collection in the slave quarters. Despite its erroneous references to the Lord’s church in denominational terminology, the documented effect of the gospel upon Harding’s treatment of his slaves is unmistakeable.
When the pure principles of the gospel are introduced into the life of an honest man accustomed to regarding other human beings as less than himself, a radical change is bound to occur. Racist notions of self-superiority cannot long exist unchallenged in the good and honest heart touched and nurtured by the word of God. A fundamental change in perception gradually occurs in the heart and mind of him who imbibes such principles of the gospel as this: “Doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in loneliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 2:3-5).
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.